Sanctuary for Troops Refusing Iraq

Image" First United Methodist Church of Tacoma has declared itself a sanctuary for servicemen and servicewomen who don't want to go to Iraq." by Mike Barber, Seattle Post-Intelligencer. June 15, 2005

Prompted by a Fort Lewis Army officer's decision to refuse to fight in Iraq, the First United Methodist Church of Tacoma has declared itself a sanctuary for servicemen and servicewomen who also don't want to go to Iraq.

The 300-member congregation's administrative council voted last weekend to open its doors beginning this Saturday after 1st Lt. Ehren Watada announced that he thinks the war in Iraq is illegal and that he has sought to resign his commission.

A statement from the church on Wednesday said that service members "who are unable to deploy to combat areas for reasons of conscience" can find protection behind its doors.

"Our initiative was because of Lieutenant Watada's gesture and a clear sense that we have, as a reconciling congregation, deeply involved in justice issues throughout the city, that any war, particularly this one, is inconsistent with Christian teachings," the Rev. Monty Smith said Wednesday night.

Smith said the church stands "in solidarity" with others who hold similar social-justice convictions. The church essentially is providing a protective space and resources to those contemplating whether to resist deployment to Iraq, he said.

Smith said the church so far has received no applications for sanctuary from members of the armed forces. It has protocols and precautions to ensure that anyone who seeks sanctuary is doing so for legal and religious reasons.

The decision marks the latest action by peace activists and war resisters in recent weeks in the Tacoma-Olympia corridor near Fort Lewis.

While troop supporters continue their vigils at a bridge near the post's main gate, Tacoma and Olympia seem to have become a new epicenter for an invigorated anti-war movement usually seen in Seattle.

Two weeks ago, demonstrations in Olympia against the movement of military vehicles from Fort Lewis to Iraq via the Port of Olympia resulted in civil disobedience and arrests.

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Last week, Watada, a company-grade military officer with the Stryker Brigade about to deploy to Iraq this month, said off-post and after working hours that he does not conscientiously object to war. He would serve in Afghanistan but not in Iraq, which he considers an illegal war.

Watada, who has tried twice before to resign from the Army, continues to work and train as an artillery-targeting officer but is under investigation, his lawyer and military officials said.

Smith said he's a bit surprised that activism is taking root in the area.
"Before, the huge demonstrations and marches were in Seattle," he said.

Spokesmen for the Church Council of Greater Seattle could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The Seattle council has expressed support for Watada, and urged support for an Interfaith Network of Concern petition to the Seattle City Council for a resolution urging an exit strategy from Iraq.

On its Web site, the Seattle church group said:

"The Church Council appreciates the difficulty for Lt. Watada in making such an important decision, given his military service, and the potential consequences that he likely will face, including a court-martial. Our support and prayers go to Lt. Watada at this time. We continue to pray and call for an expedited end to the war in Iraq and for the preservation of all lives in the areas of conflict."

Smith, joined by other local clergy members, has scheduled a news conference for noon Friday to explain the church's position and to answer questions.

The church, at 423 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood, has a long history of supporting social justice since opening its doors in 1876.

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